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Kabuki is spectacular and you don’t have to know anything to enjoy it. But a little bit of information about a few of the terms and the plays makes it even better.
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Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji / 京鹿子娘道成寺
—The Girl at Dojoji Temple—

First performed in 1753 by Nakamura Tomijuro I (1719 – 1786) this is the definitive transformation of the classical Noh play Dojoji into kabuki dance and is the greatest dance for an onnagata female role specialist as well as being one of the most famous pieces in the Nagauta lyrical style of music. The original Noh play is based on the legend of Dojoji temple in Wakayama Prefecture. Often called the "Anchin-Kiyohime" story, it is about a young girl named Kiyohime who fell in love with a priest named Anchin. He ran away from her and took refuge under the bell at Dojoji temple. When she found out, her jealous fury turned her into a serpent that coiled around the bell and destroyed it and Anchin. The Noh play takes place at Dojoji temple after these events when a new bell is being dedicated. A woman who is a shirabyoshi dancer comes to dance for the dedication, but she is actually the ghost of Kiyohime and when her dance puts all the guards to sleep, she jumps up into the bell. In the second half of the play, she appears as a demon as a holy man tries to exorcize the spirit.

Tomijuro I’s Musume Dojoji was the culmination of the Dojoji tradition in kabuki. Since Noh was officially the art form of the ruling samurai class, the original Dojoji couldn’t be copied too directly. Some key motifs were taken from the original Noh play and mixed with pure kabuki dance. Sometimes the part with the demon was emphasized and it became the occasion for acrobatics. Eventually it became a dance for an onnagata female role specialist and most often it was set in the pleasure quarters and the main character was a high-ranking courtesan (keisei.) In this case, the theme was love for a woman of the pleasure quarters. Often the part of the play where the character appears as a demon was not performed. When it was performed, rather than appearing as a demon, the actor performed the feminine version of the lion dance.

Musume Dojoji was epoch making because instead of showing love in the pleasure quarters, it showed the love of an ordinary young girl that might be seen in one of the cities of the Edo Period. The original Noh play of Dojoji only remains at the very beginning where the girl Hanako comes to Dojoji temple to dance for the dedication of the bell and the very end, when she poses on top of the bell, her pose and costume suggesting the serpent of the original. For the most part, it is a series of pure kabuki dances on the theme of love with no particular connection to the actual plot of the original. The dancer uses many different props, including a fan, a handcloth (tenugui,) a string of red round hats, a stick drum (kakko) and a pair of tambourines (suzu-daiko.) The highlight of the dance is the kudoki or "lament" which begins with the lyrics "koi no tenarai (the learning of love)" and the dancer uses the handcloth to express the innermost feelings of a young girl who has loved and been disappointed in love.

Michiyuki Hatsune no Tabi – Yoshinoyama / 道行初音旅 吉野山
—Mt. Yoshino—

Originally this was the travel scene from Act IV of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, first performed in 1747) and is now presented both as part of the full-length play and as a separate scene. There are actors who copy the original puppet play very directly and do the dance with Gidayu music alone, but the more standard version uses a mix of Gidayu and Kiyomoto narrative music.

The scene is about Yoshitsune's retainer Sato Tadanobu who is famous for having sacrificed his life for Yoshitsune when he was escaping from Mt. Yoshino. In this play, the main character is not the actual Tadanobu, but a magical fox who has taken the form of Tadanobu to be close to a drum called "Hatsune" which is a great treasure and is carried by Yoshitsune's lover Shizuka. The fox Tadanobu wants to be close to the drum because it is made from the skins of his fox parents. The fox Tadanobu happens to rescue Shizuka and Yoshitsune asks him to protect Shizuka. The dance takes place as Shizuka and Tadanobu are traveling to Mt. Yoshino, where they have heard Yoshitsune has taken refuge.

This particular version of the scene was first presented in 1808. Instead of just the Gidayu narrative music taken from the original puppet play, it also has Kiyomoto narrative style music. Originally it was performed with the related Tomimoto style of music, but now that Tomimoto has virtually disappeared. Kiyomoto is used.Kiyomoto is a light, erotic style of narrative music that developed in Edo. It's sleek, sophisticated sound was more attractive to Edo audiences than the original and the piece alternates these two contrasting styles.

In the first section of the dance, Shizuka has become separated from Tadanobu, so she plays the drum and he magically appears. They dance together celebrating the beautiful spring landscape, almost looking like a pair of lovers, although they are actually lord and retainer.

Then in the second section, Tadanobu recalls that he has been so favored by Yoshitsune since his brother died in Yoshitsune's place. Tadanobu performs a "monogatari (battle tale)" where he recalls the battles leading up to his brother's death including a famous episode where two warriors, the Heike warrior Kagekiyo and the Genji warrior Mionoya fought. Their weapons broke and so Kagekiyo grabbed the flap of Mionoya's helmet. They grappled and Mionoya was unable to move. Finally the flap of the helmet tore off and the two warriors laughed and praised each other's strength and then the battle continued. In this part, the dancer playing Tadanobu must alternate rapidly between playing Kagekiyo and Mionoya and the entire section is full of vigorous masculine movements.

The final section of the play (which was not originally a part of the dance, but was added later) has a comic villain Hayami no Tota come with his men to try to get Shizuka and the precious drum. There is a dance-like fight in which the fox Tadanobu uses his magical powers to manipulate the fighters.

Tsuchi Gumo / 土蜘
—The Earth Spider—

First performed in 1881, this is a "matsubame mono (pine board piece)" based on the classical Noh play of the same name and performed in a setting that copies the simple stage used in Noh. The music is in the lyrical Nagauta style. It was written for Onoe Kikugoro V (1844 – 1903) and is a specialty of his family. It is one of many plays about the demon quelling general Minamoto no Yorimitsu (with a different reading of the characters for his name, in the theater, he is usually called "Raiko"). Raiko is sick and in the first half of the play, he is visited by a mysterious priest who says he will try to cure him. But in fact, this is the spirit of the earth spider who has caused Raiko's illness in the first place and is trying to kill him. In the second half of the play, the main actor appears as the spider and fights Raiko's men with his spider webs, which are actually made from rice paper sliced into very narrow strips.

Ayatsuri Sanbaso / 操り三番叟
—The Marionette Sanbaso—

This dance was first performed in 1853 and features the lyrical Nagauta style of music. It is another example of a "matsubame mono" and features the Sanbaso dance, a ceremonial dance that in the Edo period, began every performance of kabuki. In this dance, the Sanbaso is performed as a marionette. He is first in a box and another actor plays the puppeteer who arranges the strings and fixes things when the puppet moves too vigorously and the strings get tangled up. Bunraku puppets are hand puppets that now have three operators, but in the Edo period there were all kind of other puppets and automatons that usually appeared in sideshows and smaller theaters. The dancer has to have excellent technique to give the impression that he is a light puppet suspended by strings because, of course, the strings themselves are mimed.

Kurozuka / 黒塚
—The Black Mound—

This dance was first performed in 1939 by Ichikawa Ennosuke II (1888 – 1963) who is better known by his retirement name of En'o I and even today is considered the exclusive property of the Ichikawa Ennosuke family. It features the Nagauta lyrical style of music. En'o I pioneered many new dances and this was followed by his grandson En'o II who created many new plays and dances and a spectacle based style of theater.

This play is based on the Noh play called either Kurozuka or Adachi-ga-Hara, depending on the school of Noh, but it is not a "matsubame mono." There is a modern setting for the dance and the first half evokes the lonely moor with a projection of the crescent moon and a stage filled with dry pampas grass. The story is of an old woman who lives alone in a remote place. A party of traveling priests comes and asks for lodging for the night and she agrees. She goes to get firewood, cautioning them not to look into the inner room. The porter with the party is tempted to look, but the priest says they must keep their promise. The porter finally looks into the room and finds it full of bloody human bones. They realize that she is actually the demon of the moor and flee for safety. In the second half of the play, the old woman appears in her true form as a demon and the priest exorcizes the spirit. One reason the play is famous is the introduction of Russian dance. When they flee in terror, the porter uses steps derived from the Cossack Dance.

Takatsuki / 高坏
—The Takatsuki Tray—

This play was first performed in 1933 with Onoe Kikugoro VI (1885 – 1949) as Jirokaja and Bando Mitsugoro VII (1882 – 1961) as the clog peddler, two of the greatest dancers of the modern era. It features the Nagauta lyrical style of music. Although there is no actual Kyogen original, it uses the basic plot of many classical Kyogen comedies which has a master sending his servant Jirokaja to buy something and Jirokaja coming back with something quite different. In this case, the master asks Jirokaja to get a "takatsuki," a kind of tray on a stand. Instead, an unscrupulous peddler gets Jirokaja to buy "taka ashi" or "tall wooden clogs." The peddler explains the clogs and they drink together. But all of this is just an excuse for the real highlight of the play, which is the drunken Jirokaja putting on the clogs and dancing. This dancing was inspired by Western tap dancing.